How Do You Parent a Tween?

preteen girl boat

preteen girl boat

There are suddenly parenting books all over our apartment, splayed on the floor beside my bed, stacked on the sofa, tucked next to the toilet, dog-eared and underlined. I send photos of paragraphs to my husband with texts like, “We need to start doing this!” or in all-caps, screaming, “READ THIS NOW!!!!” I want every piece of advice. I want to inject the books into my veins.

Until now, I never truly felt the allure of the parenting book as a genre, not only because I subscribed to the idea that no one knew better how to parent our particular child than we did, but because the information often felt so comically contradictory. I will never forget the rant about sleep training that went viral when my daughter was a baby — which made parenting advice feel like a sick joke meant to make every one of us feel like a failure.

But now that my daughter is a tween, I find myself searching for answers with a newfound desperation: How do I teach her to manage time and schoolwork? Does all her homework need to be correct or should I let her figure out that she misspelled “misspelled” on her own? How do I encourage her to push herself but not to the point of burnout? How do I let her fail? How do I teach her to respect her body? How do I teach her to enjoy her life without the incessant pull of the internet? To develop digital safety?

Clearly I have one million questions.

Before now, when we had a decision to make — When should she eat solid foods? What do we pack for a long flight? — we just did what felt best to us, and it seems to have worked. But now the questions are getting much bigger. My dad’s old mantra rings true: little kids, little problems; big kids, big problems. I say this knowing my kid isn’t even that big. But 10-year-old problems are harder than three-year-old ones. Just as — I know, I know! — 17-year-old problems will be even harder. It’s only just begun, but it has begun with a bang.

Nine years ago, when I sent my toddler off to daycare in Vienna, where we lived for a few years, it was our first real separation. The fact that she was spending her days learning and speaking German, a language I could barely comprehend, made me feel the change more dramatically. She was in a world that was hers alone, not only geographically but also linguistically. For two years, I could only wave to her from the doorway.

This tween phase reminds me eerily of those years: as hard as I try, there’s something about it I do not get. There’s something inside her that’s now inaccessible to me. Some boundary is setting in, just as it did with my own mother — a healthy boundary, but one that nudges me out, little by little, nonetheless.

Perhaps my need for these parenting books has to do with the fact that I am feeling time more acutely than I did when she was two or four and we still seemed to be at the very beginning of it all. When your kid is 10, the time you have with them at home is still a nice chunk, but they will probably spend it more and more in the company of friends, at school, at dance class, soccer, rehearsal, camp, or even just behind a closed bedroom door.

So, whereas I once almost exclusively trusted my gut (she is so, so deeply loved! That’s all that matters!), now I regularly reach out to my girlfriends with teenagers:

Is it normal for her to come home from school and immediately disappear into her room for, like, hours??
Yes, kids deserve privacy, too, they tell me lovingly.

Do I need to correct all her homework?? I ask.
No! they say.

When things go off the rails, when there is screaming and slamming of doors, when the sarcasm reaches new heights, I take deep breaths to stop myself from yelling back. I meet my husband’s eyes and we communicate telepathically: Stay calm. I listen to podcasts about puberty. And of course I read like a madwoman: Lisa Damour and Jennifer Breheny Wallace and Devorah Heitner are my new gurus.

Now and again, there are the afternoons where mothering feels easy again, when I remember that I do know what I’m doing with this kid that I love more than anything on earth. After a recent meltdown, I invited her to get into our cozies, grab some popcorn, and cuddle under a blanket in front of a cooking show. She let me take her into my arms, she let me care for her the way I did years ago. Nothing was solved, the school drama was just where we’d left it, but she was comforted. Miraculously, we got through it together, the way we always have.

These calm moments help me during stormier ones, when I need to be reminded that I am not always flailing; that it is normal for her to get angry, to slam the door, to spend more time in her room, to pull away. That I must let her, that we can both do this.

Parenting a preteen feels like learning to drive a stick shift when I’ve been manning an automatic for a while. Now I have to lay on, lay off, lay on, lay off, work both legs, read the road, listen to even the subtlest sounds the car is making, and change gears, knowing I will stall out and rev too hard and even sometimes strip the gears. I just have to keep driving. I have to remember that I know how.

Abigail Rasminsky is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles. She teaches creative writing at the Keck School of Medicine of USC and writes the weekly newsletter, People + Bodies. She has also written for Cup of Jo on many topics, including marriage, shopping with teenagers, and only children.

P.S. More on parenting teenagers, including 21 completely subjective rules for raising teenage boys and 21 completely subjective rules for raising teenage girls.

(Photo by Irina Ozhigova/Stocksy.)

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